So, there we have it. It’s all over, including the shouting. Setting aside the shudder of abyssal despair that accompanies the sight of a Conservative walking through the door of Number 10 (I can’t help it; I was around in the 1980s; I remember…), I thought I’d corral together a few of my concluding thoughts about the whole process. Then this blog can get back to normal business – self-indulgent whining, and bizarrely emphatic opinions on matters of little importance. Ok, so:
(1) I don’t understand what the Lib Dems were thinking
I mean, I really, really don’t. I don’t understand what they get from a formal coalition that they couldn’t get from an informal, ad hoc, Bill-by-Bill approach. Want to raise the threshold for Income Tax to £10k, and to make sure the threshold for Inheritance Tax doesn’t increase? Tell the Conservatives that if the budget isn’t written accordingly, the Lib Dems will vote against it, and the government will fall. Or, if you don’t want to be so negative, threaten to introduce an amendment to get what you want – an amendment that will become law, even over the Conservatives’ objections, because Labour and the Nationalists and the Green will back it, since it tallies with their beliefs and has the added advantage of embarrassing the Tories. With the Conservatives as a minority administration, the Liberal Democrats had David Cameron exactly where they wanted him. With the judicious use of a carrot (we’ll help you look statesmanlike, Mr Cameron) and a stick (we can humiliate you like that, Davey-boy) the Lib Dems could have got everything they’ll get from a formal coalition, but without having to join the formal coalition.
And that difference would have been key. As part of the government, the Lib Dems are going to get joint-equal blame for everything the government does that is unpopular – and that’s going to be a lot. £6 billion cuts, and that’s just for starters? Think of all those millions upon millions upon millions of people who will feel the knife cut, and will know that it’s cutting only because the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Conservatives, and will resolve on the spot to never vote Lib Dem again. But with an ad hoc arrangement they could have agreed that cuts were necessary behind the scenes, and to abstain, then trotted out in public the line that they don’t approve, but that it’s important, constitutionally, to allow the Conservatives the chance to govern. The end result would be the same – the cuts would have been enacted – but all the blame would have fallen on the Conservatives alone.
And let’s not forget, a minority Conservative administration, living hand-to-mouth, making hugely unpopular decisions – they’d have given up, exhausted, in 6 months to a year, and called a fresh election – an election they could not have won. An election in which the Lib Dems, untarnished by what the Tories had done, could present themselves as the only real alternatives to an exhausted, discredited Conservative party and a Labour party still suffering from the internal recriminations caused by their leadership process. An election at which the Lib Dems could have told the electorate “we told you what would happen if you voted for one of the ‘old parties’, and we were right – please, this time, cast your vote for us when you get to the polling booth”. An election that would have left a resurgent Liberal Democrat party with a clear mandate to insist on Proportional Representation.
Instead of which, the Lib Dems have got into bed with the Conservatives. They’ve given Labour their ‘line’ for the next election, and it’s a doozy: “Vote Conservative, Get the Conservatives; Vote Lib Dem, Get the Conservatives. The only way to get rid of the Conservatives is to vote Labour”. It apparently didn’t occur to the Lib Dems that the Labour party – with their ‘not-serious’ coalition negotiations – were playing them for all they were worth, encouraging them to join up with the Conservatives because it was the single best outcome for the Labour party. And all for – well, for what?
A referendum on a version of electoral reform the Lib Dems don’t want, because it will entrench the large parties’ advantage? Five Liberal Democrats around the cabinet table – but in junior posts, outvoted in every decision, and then obliged to argue publicly for policies they opposed in private as a result of collective Cabinet responsibility? A chance for Nick Clegg to experience the endlessly renewed public humiliation of playing second fiddle to David Cameron? A fixed-term parliament – but at the price of a clause that means a government has to lose a confidence motion 45%-55% in order to trigger a general election, a figure conveniently just out of reach, in this parliament, of Labour and the Lib Dems combined? (And bear in mind that Labour and the Lib Dems could defeat every piece of legislation the government brought forward, but wouldn’t have the votes to trigger an election. How in the hell could that even work?)
Maybe they’re hoping that the government will do well, that, in five years time, a relieved public will reward them. But, even if they’re right, the public will reward the Conservatives at the same time, and are the Liberal Democrats really so naïve as to think a Conservative government with an outright majority will have one ha’porth of gratitude to the party that helped them get there? Because if they are, then they need to hear it now – that’s just not the way the Conservatives roll. That’s not the way any political party rolls.
The Liberal Democrats had a position of real power, and so far as I can see (at the moment, and maybe disappointment is causing me to overreact) they’ve thrown it away. They had a chance to get legislation they backed into statute while heaping humiliation on their political foes, and chose instead to share the humiliation for no significant extra benefit. The Lib-Con pact gives the party influence in this parliament, but at the expense of securing their proper share of influence in every parliament to come. This was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Lib Dems, and they’ve blown it. And, worse, they’ve blown it for every other party that stood to benefit under a fair electoral system – like the Greens, for example. (And, yes, they were the party I supported in this election, and yes I am bitter that they have only one MP when, proportionately, they should have seven.)
(2) David Cameron hasn’t done so badly
As we’ve already seen, he’s done astonishingly well out of the coalition negotiations, but he’s not done so badly in other ways, either. Many people have been arguing that a failure to secure a majority government is a catastrophic failure on Cameron’s part, but, truthfully, he never had much chance of an outright majority. He secured a 5% swing in his party’s favour, which is really not bad going. It’s the third-highest swing the Conservatives have achieved since 1945, and almost matches Margaret Thatcher’s swing of 5.2 in 1979. As I wrote on the 22nd November last year, as the Conservatives soared 13 points clear of Labour in the polls:
the Conservatives do still have a mountain to climb. That maybe sounds like an odd thing to say, when a poll this week has found that they are on 42%, with Labour polling 29%. The reason the mountain exists is that, as things stand, Labour has a huge parliamentary majority. Comparing the 2005 election with the 2010 one, it would take a 7.1% swing to the Conservatives for them to have a parliamentary majority of one.
There really isn’t much shame in failing to climb a mountain of that height, especially when you take into account that, as I pointed out in the same post, the election
will take place against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. […] economic crises tend to cause a shift to the left. This is what happened in both the UK and USA in the 1930s, and it’s already happened in America this time round. In the UK (well, OK, England – things are more complicated elsewhere), the ‘natural’ opposition to Labour, the Conservatives, are, of course, a party of the centre-right, which raises a question as to how inclined non-aligned floating voters may be to vote for them.
It also seems that I wasn’t especially taken in, back then, by the many people (oh so very, very many…) who thought that a Conservative majority was a foregone conclusion, an absolute, inescapable certainty:
it still seems to me that there is a general perception around at the moment that the Conservatives don’t really have to do anything because the 2010 election is already won. As I’ve already pointed out, there are two potential problems with this argument. Firstly, the last time we were crawling towards the fag-end of a desperately unpopular Labour government, in 1979, the public dissatisfaction with Labour was enough to produce a strong swing to the Conservatives – but the size of the swing wouldn’t be enough to put them in government this time around. Secondly, the evidence from the European elections suggests that, while people are unquestionably frustrated with Labour, they don’t seem to be switching en masse to the Conservatives. […] So far, they’ve [the Conservatives] been very effective in getting across the message that Labour have failed, but they seem to have been less successful in getting across how they will manage to succeed.
I don’t want to boast, but I feel pretty vindicated by all of that. The poll I reference there has Labour on a 29% share of the vote, which is what they achieved on Thursday, while the Conservatives dropped from 42% to 36.1%. I think I was right to say that the electorate wanted to punish Labour but that they weren’t really being fired up by the Conservatives, none of whose policies seemed to be giving them ‘traction’. That seems to have held true from then to now, with Labour doing no better, but the Conservatives doing worse. I guess, in that sense, you could say that David Cameron is deserving of some criticism for not managing to fire up the public, but, honestly, I think he and the Conservatives did about as well as a party of the right starting from where they started in 2005 could be expected to.
(3) The Labour party
Somewhat impressively, Labour have managed to snatch mere defeat from the jaws of absolute annihilation. All the talk is going to be – is already being – about how Cameron and the Conservatives couldn’t “do it”, with a consequent reduction in emphasis on the Labour party losing. So they’re starting from a good place. Gordon Brown’s very public mea culpa for the failure of the government he led provides an opportunity for the rest of the party to distance themselves from the defeat without looking disloyal – they can praise GB for his nobility while taking every chance to emphasise that he was right, it really was all his fault. (No doubt that’s why Gordon Brown said it in the first place.) Assuming they manage to get through the leadership process without giving themselves a mortal wound – never an entirely safe assumption where any political party are concerned – they could manage to spend the next five years as ‘the progressive opposition’ (as they’ve already started to describe themselves), exploiting every sign of discord and division within the coalition while emphasising that, if you don’t like the government, Labour are the only other game in town. To quote myself from November again:
if you are a Labour supporter, I think you should be hoping for them to lose. I know that seems backwards, but the thing is, there’s no way they’ll win a 5th general election. If they lose now, there is a chance that the Conservative majority will be narrow enough that future elections will still be up for grabs. On the other hand, if they win in 2010, Labour will be absolute electoral poison by the time of the next election, and will lose it at least as badly as the Conservatives lost in 1997. If Labour were to win in 2010, it would pretty much guarantee that a lengthy period of Conservative supermajority would follow. No, if you’re a Labour supporter, you ought to be hoping they lose – just not too badly.
Losing but not too badly is what they’ve pretty much managed – somehow – to achieve. It does raise the possibility that the Conservatives may not be in power for the next god-knows-how-long, but only the possibility – in the end it will come down to how effectively the Con-Lib pact hangs together, and how effectively Labour attack. That second one will largely depend on who they elect as leader – if they go for Harriet Harman, or Ed Balls, or Alan Johnson then they’ll have shot themselves in the foot.
(4) Self-congratulatory navel-gazing (or omphaloskepsis…)
It comes as something of a surprise to me – before I was blogging I never really stopped to think about whether what I thought would happen in advance bore any relation to what actually happened – but I’m actually not entirely dreadful at this political analysis stuff. Certainly, I seem to be better than a lot of professional analysts, who were in full-on ‘Conservative majority inevitable’ mode right up until the first TV election debate. I feel quite proud that I foresaw a hung parliament as the most likely outcome getting on for 6 months ago, and continued to predict one throughout Thursday night/ Friday morning, even as the BBC wobbled between a hung parliament, then an outright Conservative majority, then back to a hung parliament again.
I’m also pleased I foresaw the possibility that the Lib Dem surge in the polls might not translate into votes in the actual election, not least because this is not something I can remember seeing anyone else doing prior to the publication of the exit polls. Though I must also point out that I did not foresee the possibility that they would actually lose seats.
Given the way things have played out, I’m pretty darn chuffed that I raised the possibility of a Lib-Con pact as long ago as November:
The only possible explanation i can think of for the Lib Dems’ actions is that they think a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party is the most likely outcome for the election. If they’re right about that, then picking up votes from the Conservatives would weaken them, and the Lib Dems’ change of direction might make the Conservatives more inclined to do a power-sharing deal.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point out that what I went onto say flatly contradicts what I’ve said in this post about which party would benefit most from a Conservative minority government:
i can’t see that it would make sense for the Conservatives to enter a power-sharing deal with anyone. They would be better placed to spend a few months as a minority administration, then call an early election, complaining that the other parties were blocking them from carrying out their agenda. In those circumstances, i think they’d be pretty much guaranteed a working majority after the second election.
I can see my point from back then, but I still think I was wrong – the Conservatives would look weak, and looking weak is almost always bad news for a political party, especially one that spends so much time speaking of the need for ‘strong government’.
I should also stress that’s not the only thing I got wrong, not by a long shot. My biggest single snafu of recent days occurred at 0529 on Friday, when I trumpeted a load of nonsense about how Cambridge was a marginal constituency flip-flopping between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. In reality, it’s not marginal at all these days. The Lib Dems came to power there in 2005, but that was nearly a hundred years after the last Liberal won, and for the whole of the intervening century the seat had flip-flopped between Labour and Conservative. In my defence, I was so tired by that stage I could hardly see my monitor, and was confused by a dim memory associating Shirley Williams with the seat – Wikipedia informs me that memory wasn’t entirely bogus, since she stood in 1987, but lost.
I must also draw attention to my repeated insistences in recent days that the Liberal Democrats would not form a coalition with the Conservatives – I got that one flat-out wrong. This is because I thought – think – entering a coalition is electoral suicide for the Lib Dems, and I couldn’t – can’t – for the life of me see why they would be so stupid as to do it. I guess this shows the limits of my forecasting abilities. I try to think about these things rationally, and so am left looking foolish and misguided when the parties behave in ways that act against their own obvious self-interest.